Teen Wins Fight for Antiabortion Club at School

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

For Stephanie Hoffmeier, it came down to believing in a power higher than a school system.

With prayer, persistence and a lawsuit against the Stafford County schools, the 16-year-old recently succeeded in starting what might be the region's only antiabortion club in a public high school. The Pro-Life Club, which attracted about 20 people to its first gathering, also promotes teen sexual abstinence as well as opposing abortion. Hoffmeier said her legal fight was a matter of equity.

"We just wanted the same rights as other clubs," Hoffmeier said in an interview last week at her Fredericksburg home. "It's not a radical thing to expect equal treatment."

Asked why she started the club, Hoffmeier said: "I feel God has put it on my heart for a pretty long time."

School administrators initially turned down Hoffmeier's request to start the club at Colonial Forge High School on the grounds that it was not tied to the school curriculum. She filed suit in federal court in Alexandria, contending that her proposal could not be denied when other clubs are allowed to form on campus. The suit put a spotlight on an often-misunderstood legal arena involving religion in public schools. Even some advocates of strict separation of church and state say religious speech by students at public school is protected under the Constitution and federal law.

School officials, conceding they were wrong, officially recognized the club Oct. 24, and Hoffmeier dropped the suit.

"When we had an opportunity to review what the circumstances were, it was apparent that [school] board policy allowed for this club," Stafford Superintendent David E. Sawyer said, adding that he was not aware of the proposal until the suit. "We certainly think student organizations and clubs are important activities for youngsters. It's not an issue that we would just prohibit."

Officials in major school systems in the District and surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs said they did not know of any other school-sanctioned student antiabortion club in the area. Bryan Kemper of Ohio-based Stand True Ministries, which has sponsored a Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity in which students across the nation quietly protest abortion, said such antiabortion clubs have formed nationally at the college level and at religious high schools but are just catching on in public schools.

"Because this student decided to stand up and fight, we're seeing this one," Kemper said. "But for every student that stands up and fights, there's probably 20 who walk away."

Hoffmeier, a junior, submitted the proposal for the club at the end of the last school year. In it, she described the purpose: "To educate people about the biggest holocaust that is going on right here in the United States. To come together and pray to end abortion. To be a voice for my generation and a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves."

Sitting in her living room one day after school last week, Hoffmeier spoke about the club's mission. Members believe that unmarried teenagers should abstain from sex and that all human life is sacred, she said, but the club also is open to students who are pregnant.

"Anybody is welcomed no matter what they believe," said Hoffmeier, who has two-toned hair and an affinity for black nail polish. Hoffmeier said she has heard little more than a few skeptical questions about the club from other students. Representatives for NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group, did not respond to requests for comment.

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